Simjang gets to the heart of Korean cuisine

By now, the genesis of simjang (spelled lowercase) has been well established as a venture by the team that started the deadhorse hill restaurant. What makes this particularly exciting is twofold. First, we’re eager to taste what’s next from the team that produced a cuisine that’s bold and innovative. Plus, the new location, in the spot on Shrewsbury Street pioneered by Sweet, is visually stimulating and instantly becomes anchor of Worcester’s preeminent dining district.

As if to emphasize this, the owners took the Korean word for “heart” and made it their name: simjang. For emphasis, they graffitied the largest heart in the Commonwealth on their two-story dining room wall. It’s not lost on us that this also happens to be the seal of the city of Worcester.

Bold? Yeah! And a bit exciting, like the rest of the dining room, with its bright-colored metal furniture, blond wooden tabletops gleaming with colorful geometric accents and their own answer to Paris’s chain bridge. The playlist ranged from Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” to UB40 to Mel & Kim’s “Respectable.” All uplifting and, blessedly, not K-pop.

Alas, the cuisine. Can it satisfy our expectations? Ashley, our server, proved an enthusiastic and attentive guide for our quest to answer that question.

Simjang’s menu is compact, with appetizers divided into Raw (including oysters and beef tartare), Other Tastes (Korean Caesar salad, kimchi pancakes, broiled mackerel) and Korean Fried Chicken. Whilst I was considering the tartare, my guest was in for fried chicken. Simjang offers wings or thighs with a choice of sauces. We went with thighs slathered with spicy gochujang sauce.

I admit to being a bit wary that a fiery hot sauce would mute the rest of the meal’s flavors, but my apprehension was misplaced. In fact, this gochujang — a deep-red sauce made with chili peppers — was more sweet than spicy. Our dish of two thighs, each sliced in half, was sized perfectly for two people; the skin was deep-fried crisp and coated with a thick layer of sticky sauce. Inside, the thigh meat was still steaming and moist.

That sticky-sweet flavor was cleanly cut by sips of my Pulse Wave double IPA (Grimm Artisanal Ales). At 8% ABV, it’s served in a snifter glass that showcased its cloudy amber color and thin, lacy head.

Dishes at simjang are brought to the table sequentially with the assumption they’ll be enjoyed family-style. They also tend to be fun; ours were equal parts chopsticks-fare and finger-food. Ashley liberally supplied us with paper products and Wet-Naps.

A Banchan Plate followed — a variety of little tastes offered up by the chef. Ours included vinegary chili-flecked pickle slices, wedges of crunchy red daikon, beet-red preserved wedges of egg and a small mound of kimchi. Each had a distinct flavor and texture.

Tteokbokki, our first entrée, are rice cakes. But don’t expect those Styrofoam disks you encounter in the grocery store. The Korean version are a universe apart — thick solid tubes with the texture of Italian gnocchi. They have a similar chewy texture and the mild flavor of rice flour.

Simjang’s tteokbokki are served in a baking dish slathered with lamb shoulder braised so slowly it fell apart in shreds — tender, rich and tasty and flavored with bits of black garlic and chili paste. I’d pair the lavish flavors of this dish with any hoppy IPA.

But what would become my favorite dish of this first visit, Bossam was another hands on event. Four thick rectangles of pork belly came equipped with lettuce leaves to build, DIY-style, your own little wraps. Layer in red chili paste, coriander leaves, white and red kimchi with the meat and achieve contrasting flavors.

Placing the first pork belly slab onto a leaf, I wondered how I’d actually load up all these ingredients and be able to pick it up without it falling apart. But everything came together perfectly and tasted delectable. The exterior of the pork was singed on the grill, amping up the meaty flavor, and specked with bits of tasty chili. The interior was soft and creamy — like meat butter.

Dessert? After all this rich food? No way! But then Ashley told us about simjang’s soft-serve machine (which is, in itself, a marvel) and the combos they make with it. I knew we’d have to sample at least one flavor, so we chose pineapple-lime. It was served in a deep glass with the top playfully twirled and dusted with toasted coconut crumbles. The flavor was refreshing and clean.

Sensing my longing, Ashley returned with a sample of the soft-serve I didn’t get to try: chocolate cinnamon shiitake. As a collector of chocolate memories, this one was creamy and earthy-rich; I’d recommend it.

Inevitably there will be those who ask, “But it is authentic Korean?”

Perhaps not. I’d call it “Korean bolted to the side of deadhorse’s heroic American cuisine,” and that’s a very good thing. And to anyone who’s heard enough horror stories about kimchi to be wary of it, I’d say, “Forget all that. Choose anything on this menu and start the simjang experience.” This is a team we can trust.

Bernie Whitmore

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